\ Kevin Kinder

Scout-ing: West Virginia Mountaineers - Illinois Fighting Illini

The competition level ramps up for WVU over Thanksgiving as the Mountaineers face Illinois in the NIT Season Tip-Off in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Thursday.


An unexpected home overtime loss to Winthrop led to some screaming headlines regarding a state of disarray in Illinois' program, and coming off a 15-19 record in 2015-16 (5-13 in the Big Ten), the concern is somewhat justified. Still, the Illini have some good shooters that can make them a threat in most any contest.

Big guard Malcolm Hill (Sr., 6-6, 225 lbs.) has been a force up and down the court, averaging 20.6 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. He's also one of the team's best 3-point shooters, hitting 16 of 33 attempts from distance. Paired with 6-2 guard Tracy Abrams (12.8 points, 63% from the field), the Illini can score from anywhere.

In an era of three guard and swingman sets, Illinois is a bit of a throwback, featuring two legitimate big men along with a classic forward in some of their rotations. Michael Finke (6-10, 230 lbs.) and Maverick Morgan (6-10, 245 lbs.) combine for 22.8 points and 9.8 rebounds per game as starters, with Morgan adding five blocks and providing decent interior defense. Forward Leron Black (6-7, 220 lbs.), returned to the court after serving a six-game suspension, and tallied 10 points and four rebounds against Winthrop. He figures to see more than the 20 minutes he got against the Eagles, and might be put into a starting role.

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Point guard Jaylon Tate (6-3, 170 lbs.) has 25 assists against just 11 turnovers, but has been a defensive liability at times and has struggled to shoot the ball effectively. Backup guard Jalen Coleman-Lands (6-3, 190 lbs.) is making good use of his 20 minutes per game of time on the floor, averaging 8.8 points per game while making 14 of his 33 shots from 3-point range.

Overall, Illinois is making 50.5% of its shots from the field, and 43.8% from three. How much of that is due to its level of competition? The Illini defeated Southeast Missouri, Northern Kentucky (a future WVU foe), McKendree and Detroit Mercy before losing to Winthrop, so like the Mountaineers they haven't faced an overwhelming schedule. Winthrop is an NCAA tournament team, though, so it's not as ugly of a loss as some might think.


 West Virginia Mountaineers has featured a diversified offense in its first three games, with eight players averaging at least seven points per contest. Granted, some of those totals will fall as the Mountaineers' output drops below the triple digits it has reached in two of the first three games, but the distribution is the key to focus on here. As long as head coach Bob Huggins can continue to put three or four players on the floor that can score, no matter what the rotation, WVU will be a difficult out. That makes this an item to track in this game: can you spot a lineup where you think 'There's only one or two guys out there that can score'? In previous years, that was sometimes the case, but so far this year it hasn't been.

The Mountaineers will look to continue to overwhelm IU with its waves of subs. WVU backups are averaging almost 50 points per game so far, while Illinois' are scoring just 33. The “our ten are better than your ten” tactic will certainly be pushed against the Illini, who will counter with the biggest lineup West Virginia has faced to date. Despite that size advantage, which was quite pronounced in Illinois' first five games, it has managed just 35 rebounds per contest – an area that WVU, with 43 boards per outing, will be looking to forge an advantage in.

WVU (3-0) vs. Illinois (4-1) Thu Nov 24 2:30 PM EST
Barclay Center Brooklyn, N.Y. Series: Illinois 3-1
RPI: WVU - 131 / UI - 138 TV: ESPNU Sirius/XM: 84

WVU is expected to welcome three players back to the lineup: Daxter Miles, who has been sidelined with an undisclosed illness, and Elijah Macon and Brandon Watkins, who were late for a shootaround. How could this affect West Virginia's rotation? The Mountaineers experimented with some smaller looks against New Hampshire, with Esa Ahmad and Lamont West the tallest players on the court, and the results were pretty good. Miles, who won't be in game shape and would have restricted minutes at best, would have an impact out front. Consistency for Macon and Watkins will be key, as will their approach after being benched Sunday afternoon.

Despite Illinois' pedigree, this is a game that WVU should win. Memories of last year's ugly showing against Stephen F. Austin in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in this same venue is about the only negative facing the Mountaineers, who should be able to harass the Illini into a lower shooting percentage than they have enjoyed through their first five games.


Freshman Sagaba Konate  got his first start against New Hampshire, but was that was due to his good performance in the first two games or the benching punishment meted out to Macon and Watkins? Starting, especially in Huggins' view, isn't as important as overall minutes or critical time on the court, but it's still interesting to see Konate take the floor at the start. There have been many instances where Huggins hasn't started his “best” five – or at least his most scoring-proficient five – in order to position himself for rotation and match-up advantages later on. However, there was definitely a message sent here in terms of doing things right – and perhaps one of performance reward as well. Konate is listed as an expected starter again by WVU, but that's usually just based on the the last game's starters.

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Illinois' offense appears to be more based on individual efforts than on passing the ball. While their success so far in shooting can't be denied, the Illini are 302nd nationally in assist to field goal ratio. WVU, which is holding foes down very well in that department, will look to disrupt the one-on-one abilities of Hill and force Illinois to pass the ball to get shots. The more passes, the more chances for deflections, steals and turnovers, which are again linchpins of the Mountaineers defense. WVU's defensive assist-to-turnover ratio is number three nationally.

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Who would have thought that after three games, Daxter Miles would be the only Mountaineer without a point?

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There are only three teams that Bob Huggins has faced more than once as a Division I head coach that he does not own at least one win against. Oddly enough, all three are from the Big Ten. Huggs is 0-2 against Illinois and Indiana, and 0-3 against Michigan.

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